Here's How Media Hurts and Helps the Church, According to Research

We live in a world saturated with media, and technology has infiltrated every area of life. Everyday, we use radio, cell phones, TV, and computers to search for answers, form opinions, and consume vast amounts of information. Inevitably, media affects our perspectives on politics, culture, and society -- and, more importantly, our approach to faith and spirituality.

Technology is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to modern Christianity. Through channels like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the Church is able to influence thought and culture in ways unseen just over a decade ago. Conversely, the convenience and rising popularity of "online church" and webcast worship services have threatened the face-to-face "fellowship of believers" encouraged in Acts 2:42.

As the media plays an increasingly large role in the lives of most American Christians, we must critically examine the benefits and drawbacks of its influence. In doing so, we must ask ourselves how we can use media to enhance our spiritual lives, further the growth of the gospel, and be instruments of "salt and light" in a fallen world.

How Can Technology Can Benefit the Faith Community

  1. Technology Gives Millions Access to the Truth of the Gospel

According to the Pew Research Center, the three major social media platforms are Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. An estimated 71% of all online adults use Facebook, and 58% of the entire adult population use the social network. Twitter and Instagram are also frequently-used social media platforms, but are far more popular among young people. Additional studies showthat an average person spends close to 2 hours a day (118 minutes) on social media.

Given the massive amount of time individuals spend online, media allows churches to easily connect with thousands of people, a previously impossible feat. Dr. Dale B. Sims, professor of Management Information Systems at Dallas Baptist University, writes that "Technology has given Christianity a voice to reach a world-wide audience" and "greatly magnified the voice of those preaching the gospel."

"Instead of reaching hundreds or even thousands when preaching a sermon, a pastor now has a possible audience in the millions," he writes, pointing out that Wycliffe, the Bible translation people, believe that is possible to translate the scripture into every known tongue within the next 50 years or less, largely because of the use and aid of technology.

He adds that technology has also "enriched the message of the Cross by providing more information to more people in a shorter amount of time," "increased the number of channels of distribution of the gospel," "provided helps for the encouragement, the strengthening, and edification of the saints through technology tools and discipleship material," and allowed "Christians to administer grace to a world that is distracted and burdened, by using tools that people are familiar with and expect to see in everyday contexts."

2. Technology Allows Us to Experience Faith in Real Time

A recent study published by LifeWay Research revealed that 84 percent of churches have websites and another 84 percent have their own Facebook pages, indicating that more than ever before, churches are streaming live sermons, lectures, and events online, allowing people to engage in the community from their homes.

Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, noted that Protestant churches appear to be opening up to the increasing use of technology as a way to connect with guests and worshippers alike.

"Not long ago churches' use of technology was often limited to a website that functioned like the Yellow Pages or a bulletin board. Now they see technology as a way to interact with people. Wi-Fi is just one more way to do that," he said, as reported by Baptist Press.

Additionally, the Barna Group found that the most common way Millennials -- a demographic that stands apart in their "unsurpassed digital savvy" -- are blending their faith and technology is through digital reading of Scripture.

Barna found that seven out of 10 of practicing Christian Millennials (70%) read Scripture on a screen, while one-third of all Millennials says they read sacred Scripture on a phone or online, demonstrating how broadly the digital trends are shaping this generation.

Barna's findings corroborate those of the company behind YouVersion, which reported that people have spent more than 235 billion minutes using the app and have highlighted 636 million Bible verses. As of December 2017, the app had been downloaded 300,000,000 times.

Millennials are also heavy users of online videos pertaining to faith—54% of practicing Christian Millennials and 31% of all Millennials engage in this activity. Over half (56%) of practicing Christian Millennials are using online search to scope out a church, temple or synagogue online.

Additionally, nearly six out of 10 practicing Christian millennials (59%) say they search for spiritual content online.

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, said in light of this research, it's clear that Millennials desire "relevant, two-way conversations on a wide-range of topics" possible -- and media makes that possible.

"The digital world simply makes this kind of interaction and transparency a non-negotiable among the youngest generations," he says. "For church leaders, the data point to lots of opportunities to engage Millennials spiritually online. This stems from the convergence of two trends: Millennials leaving the Church, and Millennials taking their faith discussions and explorations online. One of the most positive trends among Millennials is that they want faith that is holistically integrated into all areas of life—including their technology. How the Church acknowledges and engages the digital domain—and teaches faithfulness in real-life to young adults as well—will determine much about its long-term effectiveness among Millennials."

3. Technology Allows Christians to Witness to a Watching World

Thanks to media, everyone has a platform to share their thoughts and opinions. While this privilege is easily abused, Christians have the opportunity to use media to promote love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).

A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that in an average week, one-in-five Americans share their religious faith online, about the same percentage that tune in to religious talk radio, watch religious TV programs or listen to Christian rock music.

The study found that 20% of Americans said they had shared their religious faith on social networking websites or apps (such as Facebook and Twitter) in the past week, and 46% said they had seen someone else share "something about their religious faith" online. Pew also found that young adults (ages 18-29) are about twice as likely as Americans ages 50 and older to see people sharing their faith online.

"The survey suggests that religious engagement through TV, radio, music and the internet generally complements – rather than replaces – traditional kinds of religious participation, such as going to church," notes Pew.

Additionally, Facts & Trends found that more than 4 in 10 millennials have participated in online faith discussions and also blogged or commented on a blog about their faith.

According to the company behind YouVersion, 222 million Bible verses were "shared" via media in 2017. The Bible verse that was shared, bookmarked, and highlighted most often by the global Bible App community during 2017 was Joshua 1:9 - "This is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go."

How Technology Can Hurt the Faith Community

1. Technology Can Negatively Impact Our Fellowship

Technology has both positive and negative effects on American Christianity. We are becoming an increasingly individualistic society largely due to the growth and influence of technology, according to a study from the Pew Research Center -- and the Church is not immune. A separate study from Pew found that in the US, one in five people who identify as Catholics and one in four Protestants seldom or never attend organized services. About half of this group stopped going as often because of what the researchers called "practical issues," meaning they are too busy, have a crazy work schedule, or describe themselves as "too lazy" to go. 

Dr. Dale B. Sims, who was earlier mentioned in this article, laments that professing Christians today have become a "culturally obese society because of the availability, ease of use, convenience, and affordability of technology."

"The goals of technology are safety, convenience, efficiency, prosperity, liberty, productivity, and control," he writes. "If people can use technology to ease an inconvenience in their life, they will not hesitate to do so. It is inconvenient to get dressed for church, fight the traffic on the way to church, board a bus to get to the building, and interact with others in a 'nice, Sunday manner'. It is more convenient, comfortable, safe, and efficient to attend an Internet church or watch church on TV or listen to it on the radio, even when we have the physical ability to attend in person."

"Online church" and webcast worship services, he says, should enhance, not replace, personal presence in community -- and we must not neglect our neighbor for media.

"Christianity has never been about convenience or safety. God calls us to leave our comfort zone, interact face-to-face with people, and go out as 'sheep among wolves,'" he writes.

2. Technology Can Cause Us to Lose Our Identity in Christ

Because people present the best versions of themselves on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, jealousy and unhealthy comparison can quickly creep in, causing users to lose sight of their identity in Christ. Social media has been linked to higher levels of loneliness, envy, anxiety, depression, narcissism and decreased social skills -- and Christians are not exempt.

Tony Reinke, senior writer for Desiring God and author of 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, puts it this way: "We are performers on a stage of social media, carefully crafting our appearance before an audience, seeking to impress and rouse applause (or likes, shares, favorites, and retweets)."

To combat this, Reinke says "we need to live in the presence of God as we live in the presence of our online friends."

"So, as digital media breaks and fragments our attention, as we feel the tug away from a biblical worldview and toward spiritual distraction, we simply lose our awareness of life in God's presence," he writes. "Whatever else we try to do with our phones, we must operate from a God-saturated worldview. It is because we want more of God and because we want to be satisfied by his presence that we seek out edifying content online, guard ourselves from the lure of vanity, fast from our phones, and prioritize our embodied worship with the people of God."

3. Technology Can Cause Us to Lose Sight of the Message of the Gospel

Technology brings "consensus, coherence, and conformity to cultures," Dr. Sims points out, even though Christianity "requires conformity to God's standards, not technology standards." He explains that today, technology has negatively impacted Christians' sense of what is appropriate behavior according to God's Word

He quotes John MacArthur, who in his book Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World, says, "Traditional methodology-most noticeably preaching – is being discarded or downplayed in favor of newer means, such as drama, dance, comedy, variety, side-show histrionics, pop-psychology, and other entertainment forms...In the past half decade, some of America's largest evangelical churches have employed worldly gimmicks like slapstick, vaudeville, wrestling exhibitions, and even mock striptease to spice up their Sunday meetings. No brand of horseplay, it seems, is too outrageous to be brought into the sanctuary. Burlesque is fast becoming the liturgy of the pragmatic church."

Similarly, Rev. Pete Phillips, director of the Codec Research Center for Digital Theology at Durham University in the UK, recently told the BBC that a "new kind of mutated Christianity for a digital age is appearing...one that follows many of the ethics of the secular world."

He explained that Millennials today especially prefer a "generalized picture of God rather than an interventionist God, and they prefer God to Jesus, because he's non-specific...He stands behind them and allows them to get on with their own lives rather than Jesus, who comes in and interferes with everything."

Phillips' comments reflect a recent study from the Barna Group, which found that teenagers today are the most non-Christian generation in American history as only four out of 100 teens hold a true biblical worldview. Another study from Barna found that as a result of an increasingly interconnected world, nearly four in 10 (38%) practicing Christians are sympathetic to some Muslim teachings; 61% agree with ideas rooted in New Spirituality; 54% resonate with postmodernist views; 36% accept ideas associated with Marxism, and 29% believe ideas based on secularism.

Sims says Bible-believing Christians must "quit letting technology define them or set the standards for the Church," as "we cannot hope to win the approval of the world by adopting the ways of the world." He advises Christians to unplug from high technology periodically and engage in a continuing dialogue among ourselves concerning this topic.

Every day, media becomes further integrated into our worldview, thoughts, and behaviors. While technology can be an effective tool for discipleship, spiritual growth and the advancement of the Kingdom of God, it can also be a source of distraction and discontentment.

As we strive glorify God while navigating the ever-changing world of technology, let keep in mind the words of Romans 12:2: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will."

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